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Does a sentence like this need a comma where the question mark stands?

Sunshine is an app for smartphones, tablets and computers [?] that lets you track and post weather news to blogs, social networks and other services.

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1  
A good quick test -- try pausing there in speech. –  David Schwartz Feb 12 '12 at 8:14
3  
You very much need a serial comma after "tablets". Otherwise you garden-path straight into an appositional misreading. Please don’t do that. You need one after "networks", too. Deterministic parses are only possible with proper commas. Also, are you pretending that tablets and smartphones are not computers? That’s weird. –  tchrist Feb 12 '12 at 15:24

3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I disagree with @Irene. The comma in question would be totally misplaced. For the sake of the English language, do not put it there!

The comma in the text would imply the sentence preceding it is self-sufficient, which it isn't. Without the second part the first part sounds awkward. The rest of the sentence simply is required for the whole to work, therefore you cannot split it with a comma.

Consider this:

My bicycle, which I bought last year, was stolen last night.

Here the part divided by the commas isn't really needed for the whole to work, therefore you can erase it and you end up with a perfect sentence, like this:

My bicycle was stolen last night.

But what if I need to further specify the subject in question? Consider:

The food that I ate last night was so disgusting!

I cannot place any commas in this sentence, as there is no "secondary part" which can be removed from the whole to work.

Now let's get back to your sentence:

If you write it with a comma, like this:

Sunshine is an app for smartphones, tablets and computers, that lets you track and post weather news to blogs, social networks and other services.

You are implying the rest can be removed for the beginning to work by itself:

Sunshine is an app for smartphones, tablets and computers.

Okay, that is a grammatical sentence, but how does it work? What does it say? How does it help anyone? It doesn't! It's a ridiculous sentence. So what do you do? Remove the comma!

Sunshine is an app for smartphones, tablets and computers that lets you track and post weather news to blogs, social networks and other services.

Now that is an informative piece of text you need to present to your audience!

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1  
Agreed on the grammatical front, but Irene is correct in that if you replace "is" with a comma (and discard "that"), this introduces a parenthetic clause that needs to be demarcated by a comma after "computers". –  FumbleFingers Feb 11 '12 at 19:55
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"Sunshine is an app for smartphones, tablets and computers." Unless I am gravely mistaken, Sunshine is a name. This means it gives information about an app. I don't think it's ridiculous, it just doesn't say everything there is to say about the specific app. That's why I consider the rest of the sentence (beginning with which) a non-defining relative clause. That's why I suggested the comma and the replacement of that with which. –  Irene Feb 11 '12 at 19:59
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I agree with Rimmer Ψ. A comma before that is unnecessary, indeed wrong, because that introduces a defining relative clause. You could, just, make a case that the relative clause here is non-defining and hence the comma is needed. But if this is so, then it is better introduced by which not that. –  Shoe Feb 12 '12 at 8:15
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The missing comma is the one after tablets. –  tchrist Feb 12 '12 at 15:25
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@tchrist: you probably forgot that "that" can never introduce a non-defining relative clause, therefore cannot be preceded by a comma for that matter. –  RiMMER Dec 4 '12 at 10:09

A comma would be inappropriate for the very simple reason that, as it's been said already, the context clearly indicates that 'that' refers to Sunshine – by means of the verb form 'lets'.

(Nobody would ever write:

  • Sunshine is an app, that lets you track and post weather news to blogs, social networks and other services.

but always and only:

  • Sunshine is an app that lets you track and post weather news to blogs, social networks and other services.)

If, for some (strange) reason, one thinks there's still room for doubt, they should rephrase the sentence. Some examples (the first that came to my mind):

  • Sunshine is an app for smartphones, tablets and computers; it lets you track and post weather news to blogs, social networks and other services.

  • Sunshine, an app for smartphones, tablets and computers, lets you track and post weather news to blogs, social networks and other services.

  • Sunshine – an app for smartphones, tablets and computers – lets you track and post weather news to blogs, social networks and other services.

Let's use now 'these softwares' (plural) instead of 'Sunshine' (singular) as the subject.

  • These softwares are apps for smartphones, tablets and computers that let you track and post weather news to blogs, social networks and other services.

Here the reader could feel confused as to whether the subject is 'these softwares' or 'smartphones, tablets and computers', or even just 'computers'. In this case, again, a comma before 'that' would be of no help; on the contrary, it would make the whole sentence more awkward. The only solution here is a rephrasing of the whole thing.

  • These softwares, which are apps for smartphones, tablets and computers, let you track and post weather news to blogs, social networks and other services.

  • These softwares are apps for smartphones, tablets and computers, and let you track and post weather news to blogs, social networks and other services.

  • These softwares are apps for smartphones, tablets and computers; they let you track and post weather news to blogs, social networks and other services.

  • These softwares – which are apps for smartphones, tablets and computers – let you track and post weather news to blogs, social networks and other services.

One last observation about the sentence:

  • Sunshine is an app for tablets, computers and the Blackberry that lets you track and post weather news.

In this case, to avoid any possible misunderstanding, we just need to modify the word order:

  • Sunshine is an app for the Blackberry, tablets and computers that lets you track and post weather news.
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Yes, it does. But you need to change that into which, as that cannot be preceded by a comma. So your sentence will be: Sunshine is an app for smartphones, tablets and computers, which lets you track and post weather news to blogs, social networks and other services.

This phrasing is a bit awkward, however. With a few more changes it will become more natural:

Sunshine, an app for smartphones, tablets and computers, lets you track and post weather news to blogs, social networks and other services.

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1  
Putting lets right after the complex NP subject helps the parsing, I agree; but I'd add a comma after tablets, just to make it clearer. –  John Lawler Feb 11 '12 at 19:06
    
Sorry, but if I could down-vote this twice, I would. What you say is totally wrong and the proposed alternative is even worse. –  RiMMER Feb 11 '12 at 19:22
    
I think taking that as a defining clause give a far superior reading, though using which with a comma as you say is not impossible. –  Cerberus Feb 11 '12 at 23:54

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